2010: A Difficult Year in Turkish-American Relations

December 27, 2010

As we approach the end of the year, it is time to take stock of 2010 and offer some predictions for next year in Turkish-American relations. Overall, 2010 proved to be a challenging year for the Washington-Ankara axis.

From of the point of view of the Obama administration, the most disappointing part was no doubt Ankara’s Iran policy, culminated with the “no” vote at the United Nations Security Council.

Particularly frustrating for Washington was that the Turkish vote came at a time when all P-5 (permanent five) countries — including Russia and China — voted in favor of sanctions against Iran. President Barack Obama reportedly tried to convince Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during a 45-minute phone conversation the night before the vote and pleaded at least for abstention if voting “yes” would not prove feasible. The fact that Turkey opted for a “no” came as a bitter reminder to the Obama administration that on issues of utmost strategic and national security importance to Washington, Turkey could no longer be trusted. As a result, Ankara lost considerable leverage and goodwill in the American capital.

Shortly after the Iran crisis, relations between Ankara and Washington went from bad to worse with the Gaza flotilla incident. The Obama administration refused to condemn Israel’s actions. Turkish-Israeli relations hit their lowest point when the Israeli military attacked an aid flotilla in international waters and killed nine Turks (one an American citizen) after it encountered resistance by activists on the flagship Mavi Marmara.

The Israelis argued that this was an act of self-defense and that the primary instigator of the flotilla was an Islamist organization whose members had affiliations with terrorist groups. Turkey, on the other hand, insists that the attack was illegal since it took place in international waters, and accuses Israel of violating international conventions and laws in the way it treated the detainees, and demands both an official apology and indemnity for the victims of the raid.

As Soli Özel recently argued: “For Turkey, the falling out with Israel and the populist rhetoric used in the wake of the flotilla incident have been costly in terms of its relations with Washington. Combined with the shock and fury engendered by the Turkish vote against the new Iran sanctions package at the UN Security Council, Turkish-American relations have soured significantly.”

In addition to Iran and Israel, a third factor contributed to the negative mood in Washington, particularly in the eyes of the State Department: Turkey’s failure to ratify the protocols with Armenia. The Armenian issue came back to haunt Turkey last week, as a congressional genocide resolution failed to come to the floor for a vote at the last minute. Many in Washington blame Ankara for not showing enough vision and courage for the ratification of the protocols that would have normalized relations with Armenia. Critics of Turkey argue that, instead, Ankara indexed the protocols to the frozen conflict of Nagorno-Karabakh and failed to convince Azerbaijan about the long-term advantages of a normalized Turkish-Armenian relationship.

Despite all these problems all is not gloom and doom in Turkish-American relations. In fact, Turkey’s very constructive approach to NATO’s new Strategic Concept during the Lisbon summit and Ankara’s help to Israel during recent forest fires offered significant ammunition to those within the Obama administration who still defend an engagement and strategic partnership policy with Turkey — as opposed to those who are deeply frustrated and argue for a more “transactional,” tit-for-tat, relationship with Ankara.

As 2010 comes to a close, what can we predict about next year? Since Turkey is already more or less in elections season, it would be hard to expect dramatic changes before June 2011. Expectations are very high for the post-election agenda, particularly since all predictions signal yet another strong electoral victory for Prime Minister Erdoğan. Turkish-American relations will quickly recover if the post-election Erdoğan government takes quick steps to ratify the protocols with Armenia and finds a face-saving way to normalize relations with Israel. Finally, a new Turkish strategy to help Washington contain Iran would be the icing on the cake.

As far as Washington is concerned, positive steps on the Armenia, Israel and Iran fronts would be the best way for the Erdoğan government to spend its political capital after the elections. At the end of the day, all this may prove wishful thinking. But optimism is always better during this season… Happy New Year.